From the lilting, world-weary lullaby refrain of its opening theme music (a non-original library piece by Jack Trombey titled ‘A Girl in the Dark’), picked out on woozy tremolo guitar and accompanied by the hypnotic title-sequence image of a swinging light bulb that suddenly explodes at the sound of a gunshot, the 1967 black & white series “Callan” announced itself as an entirely different kind of espionage show from anything anyone had seen on British TV up to that point. The seedy, desperate ‘rat's life’ of grubby underworld crime characterised by deception and fear and cold-blooded murder so evocatively depicted by the series, was a world away from the brisk adventure dynamics of “Danger Man” or the glamour of the fantasy-spy genre epitomised on film by the James Bond franchise and on TV by shows like “The Avengers” and “The Champions“. Novelist and screenwriter James Mitchell instead looked for inspiration for his downbeat title character and his twilight world of espionage from an emerging genre of cynical, hard-bitten cold war spy fiction then being produced in response to the Cambridge Spy revelations by the like of John le Carrie and Len Deighton. Mitchell had himself already written several novels in the genre by the late-sixties under the pen name James Munroe, and was also to go on to successfully novelise the Callan series in four books.
Almost forty years later and the initial black & white series stands up amazingly well; these are literate, suspenseful, cleverly plotted tales with an uncompromising take on the genre that give present-day TV shows like “Spooks” and “24” a run for their money in terms of their unpredictability. And if you thought “24” was innovative in its ruthless habit of killing off its main recurring characters, then think again: “Callan” creates such an atmosphere of pinched fear, paranoid loathing and hostility as the series develops, that one feels anything could happen to anyone at any time and anyone could die at any moment; it follows through with its cold, remorseless logic right to the bitter end when the final, devastating episode of the second series leaves its main protagonist broken and compromised like no other title character has been before or since.
The title role, as memorably played by Edward Woodward (who won a BAFTA award for his portrayal of the character), gives us a very different kind of leading man. Shifty, almost weasel-like in the pilot episode, Callan is not a hero in any conventional sense. There are no heroes in his world. When he’s placed in danger he visibly sweats and gets jumpy. He’s short-tempered and often acts in ways that aren't usually tolerated by audiences who demand an unambiguously ‘good’ character as their point of reference. There is only ambiguity in Callan’s world though; innocent people are often caught up in the fallout from his activities and in one episode he is even shown bullying an innocent elderly couple in order to get them to co-operate with his mission. There have been few other drama serials as willing to show their main character in such a bad light.
Callan is a failed soldier: once trained as a killer in Malaya during his National Service, he had nowhere to go, once dumped back on Civvy Street, but straight into a hopeless career as a petty burglar that got quickly curtailed by a prison sentence. After emerging from Wormwood Scrubs three years later, he was recruited by a shadowy, unofficial and strictly off-the-books section of the British Security Services that deals in illicit assassinations and illegal surveillance of suspects. Using methods that are little different from those of the criminal world (burglary, extortion, blackmail and bribery) it calls itself, simply, ’Section’. Covertly approved by the highest (but unseen) levels of British Intelligence, Section doesn't officially exist and so if any of its operatives are caught during the course of their usually highly illegal activities, they are subject to the full might of the law with no extraction possible. Callan is a perfect operative in three respects only: he is a ruthless killer, a vicious fighter and a dead shot. In all other respects he is a liability to his exasperated but cold-blooded section chief, known only by the codename ’Hunter’.
The series, produced by Terrace Feely, was developed from a one-off script entitled "A Magnum for Schneider", written originally by Mitchell for a TV anthology of detective tales, but later produced for ABC by Sidney Newman's flagship drama series "Armchair Theatre". In it, Callan (Edward Woodward) is the ex-assassin who has been put out to pasture by his boss, the Colonel, Section chief code name Hunter (Ronald Radd), after a crisis of conscious leaves him unable to function properly as an operative. He's placed as a bookkeeper for a dingy back-street wholesalers' firm and the nondescript placement seems to fit him well, until it emerges that Hunter simply wants him there for yet another, even more clandestine job!
Now no longer officially working for Section, Callan is at the mercy of his former employee just like anyone else. Hunter merely wants him to murder a troublesome arms-dealer called Schneider who now works in the same block of offices as he does; all knowledge of the crime can be denied by Section if anything goes wrong, because Callan is no longer even officially working for British Security Services. Caught in an impossible position, the former killer is forced unwillingly to go ahead and plan the mission, utilising his criminal connections like the shady housebreaker he met in the Scrubs christened Lonely (a wonderful comic performance by Russell Hunter that provides the series' with its only regular light relief), who is often called in to work freelance for Callan, cash-in-hand, providing him with black-market weaponry & ammunition and sometimes tailing suspects for him — all without ever really knowing too much about his boss's ultimate agenda. Also tailing Callan, with orders from Hunter to make sure he carries through his mission and complete it for him if he doesn't (with the idea that Callan can always be framed for the killing anyway) is the younger, callous and supercilious Section operative, Toby Meres (played in the original pilot by Peter Bowles but more forcefully in the series by Anthony Valentine): a sarcastic, public-school educated spy who loathes the ill-mannered Callan, although a sort of strained mutual tolerance gradually develops between them over the course of the episodes of two series after they've faced several life-threatening situations together.
Callan cannot resist finding out, against orders, everything he can about the man he is marked to kill though. Insinuating his way into Schneider's life, he finds that he and his quarry have much in common, including a love of 'War Games' — where famous historical battles are played out with toy soldiers. He discovers that the man has profited by providing weapons to groups responsible for the killing of British soldiers though, and thus decides he can after all justify the murder to himself. Nevertheless, he records a tape implicating Hunter and Section should they try and frame him for the crime — but Meres is keeping close tabs on Callan as ordered and there seems no way out of the predicament.
The episode ends with Hunter placing Callan's name in a red file — seemingly marking him for immanent death according to Section's colour-coded filing system. This "Armchair Theatre" episode survives as a filmed copy of the original videotaped show but only two episodes of the following series remain — the first and the last — but they at least provide a fairly good overview of how the series developed in the six broadcast episodes. "The Good Ones are all Dead" follows a similar structure to the original play, while acknowledging the preceding events. This time Callan is involved in organising the identification and hand-over to Israeli secret services of a former SS Officer who has subsequently assumed the identity of a respectable Egyptian businessman; he is made all too aware of the fact, by Hunter, that his name has been placed in a Red file and it won't be removed unless he willingly goes undercover for Section to establish the identity of the accused man. In the final episode of the first series, "You Should Have Got Here Sooner", Callan, still on the outskirts of Section's activities, discovers that his old antagonist Meres (Anthony Valentine) has been involved in the jailbreak of a known Russian spy, Pollock, while posing as a KGB agent. When Meres beats up Lonely who has unwittingly stumbled upon Section's plan to use Pollock to retrieve a hidden micro-dot, Callen decides to disrupt the operation and teach Meres a lesson in the process.
These three episodes establish the general downbeat tone of the series, a tone that was kept to throughout the second series, despite Callan once again joining the Section as a full-time operative when its head is unexpectedly replaced by a brand new 'Hunter'. Still, every opportunity is taken to eschew the notion that there is anything remotely nobel or glamorous about the world of spies. Section is a far cry from the high-tech shininess of, say, CTU. It operates out of a disused Edwardian-era school, Callan and the other occupants entering through a backdoor next to the metal dustbins. Inside, the shooting range, Gym and Hunter's office look little different from what they are: semi-dilapidated former classrooms. Callan is perpetually on edge and prone to violent outbursts; his criminal contact, Lonely, is perpetually in fear of him and consequently reeks of BO. Callan and Meres hate each others' guts and barely trust each-other anymore than they trust the other side or the dubious characters they are constantly framing and targeting for death.
By the second series, cold war paranoia has really begun to seep into the bones of the series. Michael Goodliffe replaces Ronald Radd's Colonel as the new Hunter: a donnish, High Anglican, Tory Cambridge graduate with no experience of the field, he and Callan soon lock horns; although, after the new Hunter re-establishes him as a fully fledged section operative, there is a slightly less antagonistic relationship between them than there was between Callan and the Colonel. The second series is where the show really comes alive with many suspenseful, ingeniously-plotted and surprising episodes such as "Red Knight, White Knight" (Section have to decide if they can sacrifice their top Russian spy in order to get their hands on a bigger prize, a defecting agent called Meres); "The Most Promising Girl of Her Year" (a biochemist with a photographic memory suddenly decides to leave her research post because of new-found worries about the possible misuse of her work. It's up to Callan to work out if she can really be trusted — or is she defecting, taking her dangerous knowledge to the other side) and "Let's Kill Everybody" (the entire Section team are targeted by a ruthless foreign gang of mercenaries employed to kill them all. No one can be trusted, not even Callan's new girlfriend, Jenny).
The thing that picks out these stories, and the series as a whole, and hoists them way above most drama, then and now, is their constant narrative movement. The episodes rarely stand still; each one ends up in quite a different place from where it appeared to be going in the beginning. By the middle of the second series Hunter has been replaced yet again (the murkiness of the line of authority is one thing the series has in common with the more fantastical series "The Prisoner", where Number 2 could change without explanation week upon week), this time by a former colleague of Callan's (played by Derek Bond) who has first to be smuggled out of East Germany by Callan and Meres after he's been working undercover in Leipzig for several years. Unusually, there is more of a productive working relationship between he and Callan — and a certain degree of respect.
Naturally, it cannot last. Callan walks into Hunter's office one day and finds to his dismay, his old adversary the Colonel back behind his former desk. Triumphantly holding out to him a bunch of red files, he utters the words "take your pick!"
Shot in stark black & white, like most British drama at the time, on cheap videotape with 16mm filmed inserts for its exterior shots, the show has been little-seen for almost forty years and has, not surprisingly, deteriorated in its image quality over the intervening years. The first three episodes in particular look quite murky, and there is an awful lot of damage to the prints — but not so much as to distract the viewer for long from the sheer craft of the storytelling on show here. The second series' episodes look a lot better and clearer although, again, not all of them have survived (they were not screened until nearly two years after the initial series due to the franchise reshuffle that saw the ABC-produced show eventually being screened under the Thames TV logo). Even these surviving nine episodes are still marred by occasional video dropouts and on-screen sparkling that can last for minutes at a time. In all honesty though, such is the seedy, murky milieu of the material in hand that the smudgy, fleck-ridden nature of the video image of many of the episodes almost adds to the overall experience of them! It goes without saying that, despite all this, you won't regret getting hold of this marvellous 4-disc collection from Network containing all the surviving black & white episodes (including the original Armchair Theatre play and a series 2 episode reconstructed from an unedited recording block into its original transmission format). One can only hope that Network have similar plans to release the remaining two colour series in the near future.